March Madness: The brackets are circulating, and U.S. workers everywhere will soon tune in the NCAA basketball tournament—many games are played during work hours—and tune out their usual responsibilities.
The NCAA tourney, which begins March 19, is infamous for the productivity loss it supposedly engenders, but it's hardly the costliest workplace distraction. Here's a roundup of productivity-killing phenomena and their estimated costs—sources and methodologies vary—to the U.S. GDP.
By Matt Twomey
Posted 13 March 2013
The world's biggest sport spectacle—it reached 46 percent of the global population and every country and territory on Earth, from Antarctica to the Arctic Circle—is still an also-ran event in the U.S. Still, outplacement firm Challenger Gray & Christmas estimates American viewership cost the economy $122 million. Compare that to $7.36 billion in the U.K.
There's something about filling out that bracket and hoping to win the office pool that makes the NCAA Men's Division 1 Basketball Championship irresistible. The FBI says some $2.5 billion are illegally wagered on the single-elimination tournament. Challenger Gray & Christmas says the productivity cost—as workers take long lunches, tune in the break-room TV or stream it on their computers—amounts to $134 million in just two days of the tournament.
Sometimes it's a one-time event that causes business to grind to a halt. In 1995, it was the O.J. Simpson trial verdict. From Alan Dershowitz's book on that moment in history, "America on Trial": "Work ceased in factories, in post offices, and in surgical suites of hospitals. It was the most unproductive half-hour in U.S. business history, costing an estimated $480 million in lost output." Trading volume on the New York Stock Exchange dropped by 41 percent, the book said.
For some people, nothing is bigger than a new product unveiling from Apple, Challenger Gray & Christmas notes, although it offers no estimate for productivity losses: "These announcements feature almost as much pre-event hype and watercooler speculation about what will transpire (as sporting events), particularly among members of the IT staff," it says. Many tune in to follow live blogging about the event during the workday.
The Black Friday kickoff of the holiday shopping season (now bleeding into Thanksgiving Thursday) is followed by one of the biggest online shopping days of the year, Cyber Monday. Challenger Gray & Christmas put the cost of workers logging shopping time at $488 million back in 2007, and it has no doubt grown since then. Last year Cyber Monday online purchases grew 30 percent from the previous year alone, according to IBM Digital Analytics Benchmark.
It's only patriotic, an office worker might argue, to want to tune in to the Olympics. Many of the events are televised during the workday, and they are increasingly available for online streaming. Whether the medal race or women's beach volleyball is your thing, Captivate Network found in 2012 that some 12 percent of workers freely admitted that they planned to watch at the office. The digital media company estimated a productivity cost of $650 million.
Fantasy football popularity is soaring, having grown more than 60 percent since 2008 to some 35 million enthusiasts—80 percent men—according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association. Participants often manage their teams from the office, and the pastime can be a terrific time suck, whether it's preparing for the fantasy draft or initiating a four-way trade. And over the course of the 17-week NFL season, the hit to productivity can add up. Challenger Gray & Christmas put it at $6.5 billion.
The premier sporting event in the U.S. is the Super Bowl, of course, with 108 million television viewers tuning in this year—the third-most-watched program on record. Because it's held on a Sunday night, it doesn't directly interfere with most people's work. However, Super Bowl Sunday is also one of the biggest drinking nights of the year, and the U.S. Center for Disease Control estimates that hangovers are one of the biggest productivity killers of all. It put the cost of mornings-after at $160.5 billion.
How did we ever manage to waste time before Facebook and Twitter? "Every time someone at work gets an IM, a Facebook message or a tweet, it takes them a whopping 23 minutes to get back on task," says a report from LearnStuff, which aggregated several studies. Americans collectively spend as much time on social media in a day as they do watching Netflix movies in a year, it says. And at what cost? A whopping $650 billion—some 4.4 percent of GDP.